Following a lengthy and unjust prison sentence, Dolores Roach (Justina Machado) returns to a gentrified and barely recognizable Washington Heights. She’s drawn to the one apparent constant from her old life: an empanada shop. But soon an old stoner friend and the circumstances of her new life will transform Dolores from masseuse to murderer. 

The Horror of Dolores Roach adapts the Spotify podcast of the same name. Both the original podcast and the series draw inspiration from the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In addition to Machado, the Prime Video series stars  Alejandro Hernandez, Kita Updike, and K. Todd Freeman.

The Horror of Dolores Roach: A modern Sweeney Todd tale

Dolores Roach has just been released from a lengthy prison sentence. She spent sixteen years locked up for taking the fall for her then-boyfriend’s drug ring. (It’s obvious to the audience from the get-go that Dominic threw Dolores under the bus, but she still needs time to work that out.) 

Dropped back into the world with just a couple hundred dollars and the clothes on her back, Dolores finds herself heading back to her old neighborhood. But things have changed in sixteen years. Gentrification has struck Washington Heights, and Dominic is MIA. Then, Dolores spots a beacon of hope in a now unfamiliar territory: the shopfront of Empanada Loca.

At the empanada shop Dolores meets an old friend, Luis, who offers to let her live in the store’s basement apartment. Luis is clearly harboring feelings for Dolores that make her wary. But with virtually no money, no friends or family, and only prison massages on her recent résumé, she accepts his offer.

The Horror of Dolores Roach

Dolores starts trying to make money by offering massages for cash. (She earned the nickname “Magic Hands” in prison thanks to the coaching of her cellmate, a former masseuse.) Just when it seems like she could actually start rebuilding her life, a scummy landlord appears to ruin things. And, long story short – Dolores ends up killing him. She panics, but Luis promises to take care of it. Dolores thinks he’ll dump the body in the river or something. Instead, Luis invents a new type of empanada. Yes, just like in “that musical starring the woman from Murder, She Wrote,” as one character in the show later puts it.

Fun premise, but disjointed execution

The Horror of Dolores Roach bounces around a lot, and the tonal shifts can leave the series feeling a little disjointed. I love horror comedy and I love camp, two of the default settings for Dolores Roach. And essentially this story is about killing people and turning them into tasty empanadas – a pretty perfect premise for a campy horror comedy.

But the show also tries to navigate several more serious topics: the experience of people of color in the justice system, disproportionately high sentences for drug crimes, city gentrification and rising rents pushing out long time tenants, and even child sexual abuse. These things add a dose of realism and help flesh out the show’s characters. However, the way they’re included often leads to abrupt tonal shifts that manage to undercut both the real drama and the heightened camp elements. I wish the series had found a better way to balance the real-world social issues with the horror-camp of turning people into empanadas.

I also didn’t love the narrative framing of the series. The setup of having Dolores’ story become a stage show is a nice nod to its real-life podcast-to-screen adaptation and its Sweeney Todd influences, for sure. But the occasional “present day” episode openers didn’t really add to the story.

There are definitely fun moments in The Horror of Dolores Roach. Particularly in the case of watching each kill play out, from accidental to premeditated to convenience deaths. Machado brings plenty of charisma, great comedic timing, and emotional weight to Dolores, which allow you to keep feeling sympathy for her even as her body count continues to climb. 

Overall, the series is a quick and easy watch, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the heights I’d hoped for.

It did make me want empanadas real bad though.

The Horror of Dolores Roach premieres on Prime Video July 7.